Sydney-based musician, percussionist, composer and performer Ben Walsh approached me in 2009 after coming across a copy of The Arrival, and seeing great potential to develop an orchestral score played live against projected images from the book, presented in their natural order. I was happy to support this, being particularly interested in Ben's work after seeing excerpts of a muscial score presented against a projection of Rene Laloux’s classic anmated Science Fiction Film “Fantastic Planet”, which was a childhood favourite of mine (think Ray Bradbury meest Heironymous Bosch). The resulting production of The Arrival premiered at the Sydney Opera House as part of the popular GRAPHIC festival, which gives particular focus to the intersection between music, literature, comics and visual arts culture. It has since been further developed and performed again at the Melbourne Writer's Festival, to much acclaim.
Sydney Opera House, GRAPHIC Festival, August 2010
Melbourne Writers Festival, August 2011
OzAsia Festiival, Adelaide, September 2011
Watch highlights of the performance
Official site: Ben Walsh and the Orkestra of the Underground
Interview with Shaun, alternative media group
Selected review by Jacquie Lee, from Fringe Benefits, Adelaide
Amongst a packed out Her Majesty’s Theatre crowd, I was treated to the unforgettable combination of brilliant illustrations and bombastic sound that is The Arrival.
The story goes that musician/composer Ben Walsh (Tom Tom Crew) waltzed into a bookshop one day, picked up a copy of The Arrival by Academy award winner, Shaun Tan. Immediately, he envisioned the whole story brought to life in sound. It’s easy to believe when you witness the production Walsh and his team have created; the visuals and ocean of sound are so seamlessly intertwined that you feel as if you’re watching a film.
On this night, the Her Maj stage resembles the organised chaos of a wealthy school music room. A tapestry of instruments: violin, sousaphone, clarinet, guitar, table, synthesizers, drums and percussion, clarinet, saxophone, zithers and an assortment of homemade oddities.
With all 11 musicians present, you’d be forgiven for getting distracted from the illustrations playing across the giant screen behind them – especially when bassist Eden Ottignon is infectiously grooving away, or when composer Ben Walsh breaks out his intriguing string thingamajig. But for the most part, Tan’s larger-than-life visuals captivate your attention, conspiring with the music to draw you into his fantastical world.
The cliff notes for The Arrival go something like this: a humble man leaves behind his wife and daughter and travels to a distant, exotic land with the hopes of making a new life for himself. Eventually he saves his family from the foreboding black tentacles that threaten their homeland (which, in context, is nowhere near as ridiculous as it sounds). He inherits a bizarrely adorable lizog (part lizard, part dog, all cuteness), and fumbles his way through navigation, jobs and food shopping with the disorientation and language frustrations universal to being in a strange land.
Tan’s sepia sketches are so vivid and precise, they appear like photographs from a not-so-distant past. I saw echoes of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and artist Dave McKean’s quirky characters in Tan’s sketches, yet it’s undeniable that this young man has a distinct and impressive artistic voice all his own. It also didn’t matter that the story has no narration whatsoever; a spectrum of emotions was conveyed to the eager audience via the Orkestra, and not once was I unsure of what was happening onscreen.
Strip back the beautiful soundscape and ethereal setting, and at its heart The Arrival is a melancholic, yet hopeful tale of a refugee’s struggle to forge a better life for himself and those he loves most.
If everyone experienced this performance, or even simply read Shaun Tan’s book, I’m almost certain there would be no refugee crisis. Should this production return to Adelaide, take my advice and do whatever (I mean whatever) it takes to snare yourself a ticket.